In Libya, those who seek citizenship must often provide evidence they don’t have of lives and events that happened on Libyan soil decades ago, but are put to the test of modern bureaucracy.
Criteria are inconsistent and practicalities obscure. Full civil rights remain a distant dream for some of the most vulnerable groups in the country.
Born in the Aouzou Strip: From Libyan to Alien
From 1978 until 1987, Libya was at war with Chad over the so-called Aouzou Strip that stretches along their common border. In order to resolve the conflict, the two countries resorted to the International Court of Justice, which ruled in 1994 that Chad should have sovereignty over the land.
Libya complied with the verdict. However, two years later the Secretariat of the General People’s Congress issued Circular (13), which abolished all birth registries in the Aouzou Strip and declared its inhabitants, past and present, as henceforth aliens to the Libyan state. Most of them were Tubu.
Pensioner Mohammed Issa is aggrieved by the country’s policies of the last 24 years. Having left Aouzou after the war in 1987, he settled with his family in the south-eastern Kufra basin. When Circular (13) decided the fate of Aouzou’s people, his status changed from Libyan to stateless person.
Mohammed’s sons were born in Kufra before the International Court’s decision in 1994 and the issuance of the notorious Circular, and were added to the birth registry of Kufra. Their father’s changing status, nevertheless, was soon reflected in their own treatment by country and people.
After the Circular, Mohammed tried several times to reclaim his Libyan nationality in court. When he filed a lawsuit in the Court of First Instance in Kufra, the judge verbally informed Mohammed that the Court had no jurisdiction in the matter, but refused to provide any written document of the ruling or proof of his claim.
Mohammed and his family could only obtain passports and national numbers after the 17 February Revolution in 2011. Although a formal communication by the General Secretary in May 2011 rescinded the decision to deprive all inhabitants of the Aouzou Strip of their Libyan nationality and ordered that their Libyan identification papers be restored to them, the competent authorities are reluctant to comply.
A rumour has been circulating in the country that the people of Aouzou held a referendum on the question of their nationality, with the majority expressing their loyalty to Chad. While the rumour is baseless, it has contributed to a growing stigmatisation of the Tubu and to racist attitudes towards them.
In fact, existing evidence contradicts this malicious slander. On 31 May, 1994, the Libyan commander of the Aouzou military zone sent a report to the commander of Aouzou Sector West confirming that all Libyan inhabitants, apart from one, had left the territory transferred to Chad and moved to neighbouring regions inside Libyan borders. He wrote that these people had been unwilling to live under Chadian authority.
For all decisions and correspondences in relation to the cases involving the Aouzou population, see the following:
While the Libyan state has taken numerous decisions in favour of the Aouzou-born population, and although they still possess the family booklets and civil registration numbers that were valid until 1996, their situation remains precarious.
To this day, they struggle to be recognised as Libyans, and there are few signs that commitments made by the state will be followed up with real measures to redress their legal status.
Tuareg and Tubu: Racial Discrimination and Political Exploitation
Gaddafi’s Promise to the Tuareg
The Tuareg are among the ethnic groups most affected by statelessness and vulnerable to racial discrimination and political exploitation in Libya. Among them are people who have returned from years in exile, included those on the temporary registry, as well as desert dwellers and nomads overlooked by census-takers.
Tuareg activist Abubakar Kahty tells us: “Under Gaddafi’s regime, Libyan authorities sought to exploit the Tuareg for the wars and military conspiracies of the late president. In return, they promised them Libyan nationality.
When, in 1972, Gaddafi created the Islamic Legion as an instrument of intervention in countries like Ruanda, Chad and Lebanon, he incited the Tuareg and urged them to come from the Sahara to Libya to be part of the “Great Revolutionary Movement of the Sahara Regions”, against the explicit will of a majority of African countries at the Non-Aligned conference in Havana in 1979.”
In his speeches, Gaddafi proclaimed the legitimate right to nationality of the entire ummah of Tuareg, inside and outside Libya. This fuelled the wish of many to return home. But once they arrived, the tone of the Libyan authorities was quite different, refusing most on the basis of a vaguely defined security clearance.
Gaddafi’s strategy of false promises amplified the problem of Tuareg statelessness, as considerable numbers of the Sahara population arrived in Libya from Algeria, Mali and other countries in the hope of obtaining Libyan papers and finding stability. Their hope has remained a distant dream until today.
False Accusations against the Tubu
Political instrumentalisation and racism have targeted the Tubu as well, who suffered tremendously under the oppressive measures of the Gaddafi regime.
In Tunis, we meet Hassan Kadano, a Tubu human rights activist who speaks with us about the complicated situation of several stateless Tubu groups in their struggle to become Libyan citizens. He says that those born in the Aouzou Strip were not the only ones facing this dilemma, with many political and social fabrications at work in the country.
After Libya lost the war against Chad in 1987, around 70 Tubu families were deprived of their Libyan nationality for no reason. Hassan believes this had to do with accusations of treason against these families’ sons, who had joined the Libyan army but traced their roots back to Chad.
Moreover, after the Kufra uprising in November 2008, when Tubu people took to the streets to demand basic rights, such as to enrol their children in school and renew official documents, they were punished with the revocation of their citizenship. More than 150 people were killed or wounded during the uprising.
The Jews of Libya: Religious Discrimination
Raphael Luzon, President of the Association of Libyan Jews, tells us that since the Jews were forced out of the Kingdom of Libya under Mohammed El Senussi in the wake of the 1967 war with Israel, they too face many obstacles in reclaiming their rights as citizens.
An old birth document for a Libyan Jew from Benghazi
Although the Jews left Libya in possession of passports of the Kingdom of Libya, birth certificates or other papers proving their Libyan nationality, they were unable to renew them after expiry.
Old passport of a Libyan Jew from Benghazi
All of Luzon’s attempts to obtain a national identity number or identification papers have failed, even though help has been promised many times, by officials from one government to the next since 2011. Their tenor has stayed the same over the years: It would take time, because the Jewish Libyan issue was a delicate one and the country was unstable.
Luzon ends the interview emphasising that he is not prepared to waive his civil and political rights as a Libyan citizen, and that he will launch a complaint against the Libyan state should the intentional procrastination of legal procedures and exclusion of the Libyan Jews continue.
Stateless Persons in Libya: Justice Denied
The lawyer Ghaliya Bouras is one of the most important supporters of victims of statelessness in Libya. More than 1,600 people have placed their trust in her defence at Libyan courts, in demanding what she describes as “the magical document”.
Bouras alleges that the director of the Civil Registry Authority himself causes delays in processing the cases of people who so urgently need to settle their legal status in Libya once and for all.
While the number of stateless persons has multiplied, no noticeable progress has been achieved. In fact, statelessness has become hereditary, as she says, which will have dramatic consequences if not resolved soon.
Bouras thinks the administrative number system only provides a solution to minor problems of the target group, such as ensuring the payment of salaries and concluding marriage contracts, not much more.
In the meantime, they are still deprived of fundamental civil and political rights. She rejects the excuses of the competent authorities that forgery and multiple registrations are to blame for delays, saying there is simply no will to put an end to this problem, while temporary solutions have only increased its complexity.
Among the cases represented by Bouras’ office is the lawsuit of Rahma Abubakar Adam, a Member of Parliament for Fezzan, against Mohammed Beltamer, Director of the Civil Registry Authority.
She accuses him of being a direct contributor to complicating the registration of her husband and daughter for national identity numbers, after they successfully completed legal procedures.
This article does not cover all stateless groups in Libya. There are people who do not believe in manmade borders and nationalities, invoking ancient roots and belonging that precede the delineation of such boundaries.
To this day, they are linked to Chad, Niger and Sudan through intermarriage and other relations, rejecting divisions between the people of the Sahara. This has left them, too, without Libyan or any other nationality.
* Note: We have written to Mohammed Beltamer, Director of the Civil Registry Authority and primary contact for questions on all matters concerning stateless persons in Libya, seeking his response to the allegations of procrastination and obstruction in cases of national number applicants who have completed their legal procedures.
After several attempts, Mr Beltamer agreed to an interview with us and requested that we send him our questions. However, since acceding to his request on 7 July, 2020, we have not heard back from him.